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Ray Jones on the academisation of children's social work

Professor of social work at Kingston University Ray Jones on why he believes the academisation of children's social work is not the way forwards.

Mr Cameron has recently announced that ‘academisation’ is the way forward for children’s social work, removing them from local authority control and provision. Is this really such a good idea? A new monograph by Chris Waterman (available from chris@waterman.education), an educationalist whose career has been immersed in schools, education and children’s services management thinks not. I agree.

For schools ‘academisation’ has been a step-by-step process of taking them outside of local authority responsibility and influence. It started with Tony Blair and ‘New Labour’ introducing academisation for failing schools, then the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition bribed successful schools to become academies by giving them more funding, with this followed by the threat that ‘coasting’ schools which did not improve their Ofsted rating would have to become academies, and now all schools are to become academies.

Academisation, including the introduction of new academy ‘free schools’, has set school against school as they compete for pupils, destroyed local strategic planning of school places, denuded local authorities of their levers and means to tackle poorly performing schools and to assist teacher and curriculum development, and removed local democratic, community and parent influence on schools.

It all soon falls apart

Schools have now become business, and are increasingly corralled into national and internationally owned chains where those who own these chains make their profits by requiring the schools they control to buy services from the chain company at whatever price is set by the company.

And whilst the academy schools are allowed to employ unqualified teachers, driving down teacher costs and salaries, top managers in the schools and in the academy chains are being paid inflated salaries, and a new breed of ‘heroic’ head teachers are being appointed by the chains. But these are not like the head teachers of the past who stay within a school for years building a culture and embedding commitment and performance. They are fast-tracked, personally ambitious, quick fix trouble shooters who drive fast change and are then recycled within the chains moving on to the next assignment, leaving behind a disrupted workforce, and with the changes they quickly implemented so fragile that it all soon falls apart.

This is a massive national experiment in redesigning a whole school system. It has all the hallmarks of energetically generating excitement rather than excellence. There is little evidence as yet that it is driving improvement, with Ofsted inspections of schools showing no significant difference between the performance of academy schools and local authority schools. Indeed there have been major concerns about some academy and free schools, and about the performance of some academy chains.

Any complaints should be sent to the secretary of state

What is known is that academisation and free schools have already undermined the strategic planning of school places, disempowered local councils from intervening within schools when there are big concerns about teaching, management and governance, and destabilised local education systems, with some schools being closed with less than a terms notice when they have not met the admissions target set by their chain owner. Fragmentation, disruption, and distant ownership and decision -making, are already being found to be outcomes of this political experiment.

And with the responsibility for all schools about to lie firmly and only with the secretary of state for education, not with local authorities, a new costly bureaucracy of regional oversight (but not control) is having to be built by the government, but with regions so large that it is unrealistic to expect that the regional structure being introduced will have much knowledge or relationship with the tens of thousands schools within each region. Just remember that when something disastrous happens in the future within a school any complaints should be sent to the secretary of state who will be the only politician with accountability and responsibility.

It is though a script based on ideology not wisdom

This drive within what is a journey towards market place competition and commercialisation of schools is now being championed by Mr Cameron as the way forward for local authority children’s services, including children and families social work and child protection. It is further step on the road of what Mr Cameron has already threatened and promised.

But good children and families social work and child protection requires a stable, competent and confident workforce, with senior managers close to their frontline colleagues, with an organisational culture which is HOT (honest, open and transparent), and with good multi-agency and multi-professional working and communication. Indeed the moves within some local authorities to embed adult services workers within community-based local children and families teams is very positive in seeking to tackle the child protection ‘toxic trio’ of adult mental health, drug and alcohol, and domestic violence.

Children and families social work and child protection is primarily a local activity which has to be embedded in local communities. Local knowledge and intelligence, local joint working across agencies, and local visible, informed and accountable leadership, are all essential to doing it well. More fragmentation, competition, disruption, distant management and confused accountability may fit within or be the consequences of a political script. It is though a script based on ideology not wisdom.

Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, and a former director of social services.

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